Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 95.
So we last stopped with Pope John the Sixth dying in 1216 AD – and leaving an empty Patriarchy for the next 20 years.
A period that saw the institutional structure and power of the church crumble,
Where eventually bishops and clergy died – and were never replaced.
By the time a Patriarch is ordained – in 1235 – there would be no more than 4-5 bishops alive in the whole of Egypt. Down from a peak of more than a 100.
But, remarkably as the institutional power of the church crumbled – a class of layman men of letters stepped up to fill the gap
Producing a burst of scholarship – one that was able to sustain the Coptic community for the next few centuries as it was about to enter into a long and a dark tunnel that was the Mamluk period
We will get to these men in a second, but before we do – I would like to wrap up Al A’Adil’s reign who – despite 20 years of constant campaigning with his old brother Salah El Din, followed by another 20 years of intense diplomacy with Franks
When he died, the last news he got was that a great Crusading army have landed in Egypt and all what he had built was threatened
You see – as Sultan – Al A’adil had one overriding foreign policy goal. Avoid another Crusade at all costs!
He opened up trading routes, constantly tried to avoid conflict with the Frankish kingdoms next door, and really went out of his way appeasing European merchants
Nonetheless, fate wasn’t on his side
You see – over in Rome – the Papacy was occupied by a certain Innocent the third who took Crusading to its peak
Constantly organizing all kind of Crusades – against Europeans pagans, Spanish Muslims, and – even Constantinople. Although, the Constantinople thing was just a badly organized adventure that went out of his hand.
They are irrelevant to our story. What is relevant, is the last Crusade he organized before dying. The Fifth Crusade – directed against Egypt in 1217 AD – right as a truce was the Ayybuids was set to expire – and to connect everything together just a year after John died
As always – the Crusade had multiple complex layer to it. Including a German emperor who used the Crusade as a leverage to deal with Papacy with one foot in the levant but two eyes on Europe
As well as the usual shortcomings of divided command, shifting objectives, ignorance of terrain, and tenuous lines of supply and communication.
Nonetheless – it has a sound strategy – Egypt first, then Jerusalem – as well as, better resources than most
And so – initially it was very successful
Landing in Damietta in May 1218, and taking al-Adil by surprise who was busy by an ineffective attempt by Saladin’s exiled son al-Afdal to seize control of Aleppo with the aid of the Anatolian Seljuqs.
And so he couldn’t come right away leaving the defense to Egypt to al Kamil, his son with limited resources
Now – Damietta is a port city on the Mediterranean – essentially surrounded by water and very hard to take
I posted a map on Patreon for those interested
But – on the North there was the Mediterranean, East was the Nile, West was a large lake
When the Crusaders arrived – they took the North – ie – the Meditreanen - with their superior navy – and camped on the west side. Between the lake and the city
Al Kamil for his part, not willing to engage them. Came from the South and camped on the East side
Essentially – leaving the Nile as a barrier between the two armies and the east side of the city, open to supplies.
And – The Crusader Navy while in theory could leave the Meditreanen and go to the Nile – threatening al Kamil camp and completing an encirclement of Damietta
It really couldn’t – as there was a large chain across the Nile from the walls of the city to a fortified Island – then to the other shore – preventing ships from going into the Nile
So, the whole summer was spent on taking that island and breaking the chain – which would open the entire Nile valley to the Franks
After a mighty struggle, it finally happened in Aug 24th , 1218
Damietta was now completely surrounded – and the Nile Valley was completely open to Crusaders
Al A’adil – when informed – fell into a state of dread and started his journey toward Egypt
A week later – he died on the road. In his 70’s – leaving power in the same fashion he assumed it. On the heels of a Frankish invasion in Egypt.
Quite poetic – I think.
He needed not to dread too much though, It was late August, which means, the Nile was flooding, making moving in the Delta super difficult for any army – let alone one that was not familiar with the terrain
By the time the Nile subsides – it will be deep winter, where the ships coming from Europe with supplies, food and fresh men will stop coming- again – putting a chill on any invasion plans.
So – al Kamil in Egypt had probably a half-year to consolidate his rule after his father died – and figure out what to do with the Frankish army in Damietta
And fortunately for him – he didn’t really have to work super hard on the Frankish problem. They were about to take care of themselves
This was in large part due to a new feature in this crusade.
Thanks to the zeal and sponsorship of Pope Innocent III to the crusade, the expedition was well funded and supported by an extensive fleet.
This meant that crusaders were able to return to Europe without too much difficulty, even as new troop arrived from the West to replace them.
On the face of it, this seemed like a good idea, since you will always have fresh men
But – the reality was as winter approached, men went home and were never replaced
Also – it allowed for constant changed in the leadership of the Crusade
If you are a front line knight, one day you answer to the king of Jerusalem, and the next you are answering to some newly arrived cardinal from Europe who has no clue what he is doing
This – cardinal was a certain Pelagius – coming just as the summer ended. And, forcefully taking charge of the Crusade as a representative of the Pope
And so – for the next 8 months – The Franks just sat around Damietta
Not storming the city – as there weren’t enough men to do it
Nor crossing the Nile and attacking al Kamil – again, a dicey proposition given the logistics of crossing a major river where an opposing army are waiting for you on the other side/
They waited and waited – for something, anything to move the needle
A rumor spread that the German emperor was on his way – but that quickly was squished as he let it known that the earliest he can come would be in 2 years. As a way to pressure the Papacy as part of their back and forth negotiation over his coronation
Then – a living saint appeared in the camp. St. Francis of Assisi arrived in a ship from Europe, making his way to Egypt in the tattered cloth of a holy man committed to a vow of poverty
Believing that he could bring peace to the world and success for the crusade by converting the Muslims to Christianity.
In a lull of hostilities he crossed to the Muslim camp, and implored the confused Egyptian troops to lead him to al-Kamil
Taking him for a mad, harmless fool – they took him to al Kamil for what amounted to be an entraining audience
There – St. Francis offered to demonstrate the power of Christianity by walking through fire and coming out unharmed
Al Kamil – to the great disappointment of his court, told him – no thanks –
After which, the saint returned to the camp, then eventually to Europe empty handed
That’s the version written after he died and was canonized anyway. Arabic sources doesn’t mention him at all. And, eye witness accounts just mention a brief 4 day visit to the Muslim camp by the saint with no details.
So yea – Did St. Francis end in Egypt preaching Christianity in the middle of a war? Probably
Did he get to meet the Sultan personally and challenge him via a trial of fire? Who knows.
Anyway – for us, the siege continued all the way through the summer to September 1219– where the Nile didn’t flood as expected and al Kamil started to really worry
He could handle the Franks, and he could handle a famine – but both together were a heavy left
And so – he made the Crusaders a deal they can’t refuse
He will give up Jerusalem, and most of Palestine – plus the True Cross and a yearly tribute
If the Crusaders withdraw from Egypt and go back to Europe
Pretty good deal, right? Especially as Franks were stuck in a siege without an end in sight for a year and a half now
They didn’t take it though. Cardinal Pelagius, pushed to continue to the war, supported by the Venetians – who eyed the riches of Egypt and didn’t care one bit about Jerusalem
Plus the templars and hospitalers – who again, were heavily involved in trade, and perhaps overconfident in their militaristic abilities
The Cardinal refusal though was a bit strange – given that most of the political leaders in the Crusade were for it
Part overconfidence that God stands on his side, part naivety concerning the intentions of the German emperor, and part plain old incompetence – by his refusal, he had doomed the Crusade
By November, 18 months into the siege – Damietta population and garrison were decimated from starvation
A simple ladder did the trick and the city fell
Where the Crusaders were confronted by a ghastly site – as one of the sources put it – quote
“they found [the] streets strewn with the bodies of the dead, wasting away from disease and famine’
As the houses were searched, dying civilians – Copts and Muslims were discovered lying in beds next the corpses of their loved ones and children
War had extracted its toll
Nonetheless, the Franks celebrated their victory and immediately baptized whatever few children had survived to this point.
Al-Kamil for his part – retreated to the next city and heavily fortified his position.
Carefully picking a spot - just south of a junction between the Nile and a secondary tributary
E – an approaching army would be penned down between two branches of the Nile
Perhaps hoping to induce the Franks to reconsider his terms
The Crusaders on the other hand, well – they did nothing. First, fighting among themselves who will hold Damietta – now that it had fallen.
Then – fighting on whether to continue the invasion or come to favorable terms with al Kamil
And – it took a while.
It was, as Thomas Asbridge put it – quote
“an unprecedented feat of woeful indecision, the Fifth Crusade spent the next year and a half entrenched in Damietta”
To keep the men from leaving – the Cardinal went to extremes
Including circulating an Arabic book, which no one can read – as a prophetic book that declared that the Fifth Crusade would be brought to victory under the leadership of quote ‘a great king from the West’.
Either way – nothing happened all the way until July 1221 – where the German emperor finally sent an advanced unit – to signal his potential arrival
Again – likely he had no plans of coming, but it was all a part of a back and forth convoluted diplomacy with Rome
The Cardinal though - again – in a very strange decision, decided to finally leave Damietta and go to Al Kamil defensive camp
At a very bad time– as the Nile was expected to flood in August. Where, not only they will be penned between two branches of the river- they may end up stranded and completely surrounded by water if they didn’t move fast enough
By July 24th, they were still a few days away from al Kamil camp and the king of Jerusalem, sidelined by the Cardinal so far – swore up and down that they should retreat now and avoid a disaster where the Nile floods around them
Naturally, he was ignored
They arrived – at August, 10th. Just the Nile flood was beginning.
Further shooting themselves in the foot, rather than see what was about to happen and scramble a retreat
It was decided that the best plan was to make a fortified camp
Two weeks later, as the Nile Flood was reaching its peak
Al Kamil ordered that the water gates, used to control the flow of the water be opened
Suddenly – the Franks – in their fortified camp were left wading in water up to their waists
Pelagius – sent for al Kamil inquiring what would be the terms of surrender
Al Kamil – in the mold of his father and really hoping to avoid ever seeing ships coming from Europe again – gave lenient terms
Damietta was to be returned back, and the Franks were to release their prisoners
That’s it. They could go back to Europe alive.
No tribute, no ransom, not even a promise not to come back again
Was al Kamil naïve? Not, on the contrary. He knew what he was doing.
He had a big, difficult to govern empire to take care off with a slew of ambitious family members lurking in the background.
And so – achieving friendly relations with Europe would go a long way in consolidating his rule
Should he had extracted a formal truce? Probably – but it is unlikely to have been respected anyway
The point for us though, as discussed last week.
Christian armies fighting on Egypt under the banner of the Cross – was immensely destructive to the Coptic population
And was followed by a wave of conversion to escape the social pressures
It wasn’t really coming from al Kamil – or some big central authority in the government
Nope – it was the day to day interactions with their neighbors that supplied those social pressures to convert
Anyway – to close up this Crusading story. Six years later, the German Emperor finally arrived to the holy land after being excommunicated by Rome.
Again – part of convoluted European politics that we will not get into. Just know, that he was there, but had no appetite for holy wars.
Similarly, al Kamil – also with no appetite for holy wars and a practical approach to governing – attached no special meaning to Jerusalem
And so – after a period of back and forth negations.
In Feb, 1229 – The German emperor agreed terms with the Ayyubid sultan. In return for a ten-year truce and his military protection against all enemies, even Christians, al- Kamil surrendered Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, together with a corridor of land linking the Holy City with the coast
Jerusalem was back under Latin control
Returned – as fate would have it – by an excommunicated emperor fighting under the banner of the cross
Like I said earlier – history can be quite poetic.
Now – to end this episode, I would like to go back the laymen men of letters who produced a burst of scholarship as the Patriarchy laid empty
This is a difficult topic, as there are many individuals who show up in the narrative as these men of letter. Each with his own significant small contribution.
It is impossible to list all of them with the details we know about him and what they contributed
So instead, we will just do a representative sample. It is not everybody, but enough to convey the message.
The first, is a whole family – four brothers and a father – known as Awlad Al-‘Assal. Literally, the sons of the honey merchant
They came originally from the village of Sadamant, in Bani Suef – and were prominent right in this period we are in. Peaking in terms of scholarly contribution around 1230 AD, and dying as the Ayybuids dynasty came to end, in 1250 AD
In the matter of the Ayybuuids – they were known by titles rather than names.
The Father was – Al Katib al Misiri. The Egyptian scripe.
The eldest, al Safi, followed by al-As’ad, followed al-Mu’taman
And the last – rising to the top of the Ayybuids beurocracy was al-amjad. At some point, he ran the finances of the army. Unlike his brothers and father – he was an important man politically, but has no scholarly contribution that we know of
We know the most about al Safi. Who served as a counter-weight to Cyril and wrote the most extensive medieval Coptic cannons. Known as al-Majmu’‘al-Safawi.
Commissioned by a synod of bishops – who wished to curtail by the corruption of Cyril.
We will get there next week.
Just know for now, that his cannons were so widespread and adopted, that they ended up the core of the civil and religious law all the way in Ethiopia
But that wasn’t just his contribution.
In 1232, he summarized and revised a book containing eighty-eight homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the gospel of John
Three years later, he had another book contained 90 homilies on the gospel of Mathew
By 1238 – he published his cannons, and ended up deeply involved in the administration of the church as Cyril stepped away
The second, al As’Ad was behind the first Gospel translation into Arabic by a Copt. It wasn’t the first Arabic translation, as Christians in Syria adopted Arabic much quicker than the Copts.
Nor wasn’t the first in Egypt – as the Melkite church had one
But it was the first for the Coptic church.
He also wrote a study of the epistles of St. Paul and one of the earliest grammars of the Coptic language in Arabic
The third brother, al-Mu’ataman – wrote a Coptic-Arabic dictionary – The first serious attempt to do such a thing outside of liturgical context
And it wasn’t just Awlad Al’Assal that were building up an Arabic foundation for the Coptic Church
Nope, you also had Girgis al Makin – a historian who wrote a world chronicle. A secular narration of events mostly concerned with armies and kings. So, there is almost no mention of the Copts in the account.
Then, there was abu Shakir Ibn Al-Rahib. Whose father was the tutor of Awlad Al A’assal
He wrote an extensive treaty on divinity and humanity of Christ, a survey of the ecumenical councils, a Coptic grammar book, and a few other entries
Lastly, coming a generation later and marking the end of this period was a certain Ibn Kabar
He wrote an encyclopedia of Coptic religious knowledge and traditions in twenty-four sections with numerous supplements.
Undoubtedly the most comprehensive record of Coptic culture and laws where he meticulously discussed every detail imaginable concerning the church
And with a collection of equally impressive volumes – six in total in topic ranging from apologetics to Coptic grammar
On the whole, here at this very exact moment. We reached our cultural peak – perhaps ever, or at least until the 20th Century
In short 50 year – the Copts produced an encyclopedia, a world history, a copto/Arabic dictionary, a law code, full bible commentaries, massive tomes of theological treaties, and an Arabic translation of the Bible
And the funny thing is, unlike the other golden ages like the time of Athanasius and Cyril, or the latter half of the 20th Century
This wasn’t driven by a strong Patriarchy or the social circumstances
Nope – This was a golden age that wasn’t suppose to happen
In between famine, absent leadership, and a Crusade – somehow, those men of letters found enough of a space to flourish
A good thing – as we are about to enter into a dark tunnel where everything would unravel
Thank you for listening, farewell, and until next time
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt, 641–1517: The Popes of Egypt by" Mark Swanson
The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by" Thomas Asbridge
Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218-1250 by" Kurt J. Werthmuller